WASHINGTON — The US Navy and Marine Corps have promised a “build a little, test a little, learn a lot” approach to unmanned ships, and the lessons learned are already leading to some changes.
Over the past month, the Navy announced it was discontinuing its high-displacement unmanned underwater vehicle, raised questions about the future of the medium unmanned surface vehicle, and established a new order for the integration of the unmanned surface vessel fleet. The Marine Corps also recently accepted delivery of its own unmanned vessel for experimentation that will inform future distributed operations.
Long-range unmanned surface vessel
As the Marine Corps prepares for a future that includes dispersed operations across a vast Indo-Pacific region, it is looking to unmanned systems as an option for everything from long-range data transfer to resupplying Marines. distant through searching and shooting at targets.
The service has previously purchased unmanned aircraft, the MQ-9A, for aerial reconnaissance and communications relays, but its first foray into unmanned boats could have a deadlier impact.
In the first quarter of fiscal year 2022, the Marines accepted the first of five long-range unmanned surface ship prototypes from Louisiana-based Metal Shark, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, deputy commander for development and capability integration, Defense News told Defense News after a May 18 hearing.
Metal Shark announced in January 2021 that it would develop for the Marine Corps “a network of unmanned vessels that travel autonomously over extended distances and carry trailing ordnance to engage targets at sea and on land.” .
These unmanned boats “will accurately track and destroy targets from a distance throughout the battlespace. Although fully autonomous, the ships can be optionally manned and they will carry several payloads, which they will be able to launch and recover autonomously.
Marine Corps leadership said these ships could also deliver supplies to Marines in remote locations, in addition to carrying offensive payloads.
Heckl told Defense News that “the Marine Corps expects to receive additional prototypes in the third quarter of FY22 for continued testing and improvements. The Marine Corps is on schedule and on budget to deliver an experimental LRUSV platoon to Expeditionary Warfare Training Group – Atlantic for further development and unit training.
Unmanned Medium Surface Vehicle
Task Force 59 of the US 5th Fleet, whose mission is to apply prototype artificial intelligence and unmanned solutions to problems in the Middle East, has extensively experimented with smaller unmanned systems that could be put to use. water for rapid tests.
The results caused the Chief of Naval Operations to rethink the Navy’s plan to have a ship-sized unmanned medium surface vehicle in the fleet. Instead, cheaper and smaller shipborne drones could be deployed in much larger numbers to carry out the same mission: detecting the battlefield and providing situational awareness data to the fleet.
“I don’t know if we’ll have an unmanned way or not. The stuff that [5th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Brad] Cooper currently does with CTF-59 and uses small drones at sea, in the air to sense the environment and make sense of it to provide a common operating picture for allies and partners, as well as Fifth Headquarters Fleet, has changed my thinking about drone leadership,” Admiral Mike Gilday said April 28 during an online event co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the US Naval Institute.
With the lessons learned so quickly through the Task Force 59 prototyping effort, “we may be able to close the capability gaps with small, unmanned, unmanned, off-any-platform shape, rather than thinking we have to build” a bigger ship. “I’m not saying we don’t need an MSUV; I say this will get us to consider the numbers and potential payloads they are going to have.
Vice Admiral Scott Conn, deputy chief of naval operations for combat requirements and capabilities, told Defense News after the May 18 hearing that the path forward for a large unmanned surface ship is clear, but the Navy needs to be thoughtful in its pursuit of an average boat.
Conn said a classified study on LUSV was recently completed. “This report refers to the fact that the large unmanned surface ship is probably the best choice from the point of view of an auxiliary magazine, to multiply by force the number of munitions that we have at sea,” he said. he declares.
As for MUSV, whose surveillance mission overlaps with smaller, cheaper options, “we need to take the time to get it right. The average unmanned surface craft: what sensors, what openings we can put on this craft to be able to move the combat needle in a way that contributes to the force.
As the Navy considers how best to supplement its manned force to conduct distributed maritime operations in all domains, Conn said the Navy is working on enablers: conducting land-based tests of hull, mechanical and electrical systems to reduce risk before putting unmanned boats in the water; developing and testing the software that underpins the unmanned vehicles; developing specific use cases where artificial intelligence and unmanned tools could be useful; then using the prototype unmanned vessels already in the water to begin testing these use cases in fleet exercises to refine USV requirements and Navy concepts of how to utilize.
High displacement unmanned underwater vehicle
Much like the MUSV, it is unclear if the Navy will pursue a large UUV or if its potential missions could be covered by the combination of larger and smaller UUVs in development.
The Navy proposed canceling the Snakehead LDUUV program in its fiscal year 2023 budget request, released in April. According to budget documents, the UUV – intended for use by the underwater community, launching and recovering attack submarines to help them see further and covertly carry out other underwater warfare missions – was not developed with the appropriate interfaces to work with the majority of attack submarine fleets.
The LDUUV as it stands today can only interface with certain submarines with the modernized system of dry deck shelters and payload processing, which “resulted in limited availability of host platforms to conduct Snakehead operations,” according to the budget document. “Cost and Schedule Delays Associated with the Development of LDUUV and the Virginia Class [attack submarine] integration prohibited new investments.
When asked if the Navy needed another properly designed full-size UUV with the right interfaces, or if it intended to abandon the pursuit of a full-size UUV, Conn pointed to a more advanced program in development: the UUV Orca Extra Large.
Boeing’s first XLUUV is in the water and the Navy will take custody of it in about a month, Conn said. XLUUV is a dock-launched vehicle that essentially acts as a mini-submarine, carrying out covert missions that can include laying mines or seafloor sensors or searching for enemy submarines.
“We need to start experimenting, iterating and learning with this capability,” he said, with lessons learned from XLUUV potentially indicating whether the Navy needs an additional large under-launched UUV program.
Megan Eckstein is a naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on US Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported on four geographic fleets and is happiest when recording stories from a ship. Megan is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.